Born and raised in the UAE, it may not surprise you to discover that Emirati Mansour Al Zaabi is a petroleum engineer.
What may shock you though is that what really fuels the 27-year-old is his fiery passion for rugby, one he discovered when he was welcomed into the Abu Dhabi Harlequins family four years ago.
Al Zaabi was looking for a sport to take up, with rugby peaking his interest. However, it wasn’t until he researched the sport that he realised it was even being played – and not only that, but thriving too – in his own backyard.
He has since gone from rugby novice to rugby nut, and was bestowed with the great honour of being named Quins club captain for the 2019/20 season – the first Emirati to hold such a prestigious position in UAE rugby.
“It’s a funny story,” recalls Al Zaabi, who has been a stalwart of Quins’ 3rds – the BaaBaas – since first pitching up at Zayed Sports City in 2015.
“I was just looking into sports I could practice. Rugby took my attention and I did my research, to see if this sport existed in UAE. I found Abu Dhabi Harlequins and I reached out and got welcomed to join immediately.
“There is that reputation about rugby, a lot think of people think it’s a violent game which leads to injuries, but that’s true in any other sport also. Rugby has its own uniqueness and special bonds compared to other sports.
“Before the Quins I had no background or any understanding about this sport, so being welcomed and treated as part of the family from day one made me want to give back to the club and to rugby.
“I’m going to give it a go and I hope to be part of spreading the sport of rugby in the UAE.”
It is a role Abu Dhabi-born Al Zaabi is relishing, even if he jokes that he was bullied into it.
“Peer pressure,” he says when asked what made him become club captain.
“I always wanted to give back to the club and rugby one day. I just didn’t expect that day to be this soon with only spending four years with the club.
“It is such a big privilege, it comes with a lot of responsibilities and I have big shoes to fill.”
Many expatriates are thousands of miles away from home in the Emirates, and yet in terms of numbers they heavily outweigh the locals.
The UAE’s Emirati population equates to roughly just over 10 per cent of the nation’s approximate 9.68 million residents (11.48 per cent) in 2019, according to data provided by the World Bank.
That’s an expat population of roughly 88.52 per cent. The same gargantuan gap is even more true of the rugby-playing fraternity, with the semi-pro game played at three different levels by swathes of South Africans, Brits, Europeans and more.
And yet, there is more than a smattering of local interest too. Take Al Zaabi for example, who has become entranced by the brutal yet beautiful sport.
Besides him, there is plenty of local interest and talent. The UAE Rugby Federation’s Player Pathway Programme (PPP) was launched in late 2011 while the Dubai Airports Shaheen Development Programme is the federation’s Emirati youth pathway, which focuses on developing players aged 15-19 years and primarily the sevens format of the game. The focus is on home grown indigenous talent who in time could represent the UAE national teams. There is a mandatory requirement, meanwhile, for Apollo Perelini’s national XV squads to include a percentage of local players at all levels.
Another Emirati Quins player to come to prominence in recent years is winger Adel Al Hendi, whose mother is Welsh. He has featured numerous times for the UAE sevens sides, while Hassan Al Noobi and Mohammed Hassan have both travelled with the XV’s squad and competed at the Asia Rugby Championship (ARC). The duo came to prominence at Arabian Knights before earning moves to Abu Dhabi Saracens.
Elsewhere, Fahad Ali was one of the early Emirati stars when he was named Dubai Exiles’ most improved player in the 2014/15 season. He was presented with his award by then South Africa captain Jean de Villiers.
In March this year, three of the Al Ain Amblers side that lost 37-21 to eventual champions Dubai Tigers on the final day of the second-tier UAE Conference season were Emirati – Ebrahim Doraee, Khalid Al Junaibi and Mohammed Al Marar have flourished into established members at the Garden City club in recent years.
It is a poignant move for both Al Zaabi and Quins, who will be celebrating a huge milestone during the course of the new season. They celebrate their 50th anniversary next year, having been established as the Abu Dhabi Rugby Union Football Club in 1970.
As well as being one of the oldest clubs in the UAE, they are also one of the most successful too, especially in recent seasons with the club having swept up the majority of silverware.
They are in a transitional period at the moment, although they did still manage to lift the UAE Premiership title last season. But Al Zaabi is hoping to help the club maintain their status as one of the top dogs.
“There are big responsibilities and I would like to make a positive impact and take the club to a bigger level,” said Al Zaabi, who graduated as a petroleum engineer in April.
“That is hard to achieve because the club is the most successful club in the last decade, but that’s a challenge I will take, to make us even better.”
He has other ambitions too. “I want to get a permanent home for the club, which is an issue. I would say most if not all clubs in the UAE suffer from.
“A lot of the club’s budget goes to pitch renting. Having our own home club will take the Quins to the next level.”
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